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Discussing the Dymaxion death-trap, 1933

Rear-wheel steering, an aversion to crosswinds and the profile of a road-going Hindenburg – what could possibly go wrong?

It could all have gone so well. The Dymaxion was the brainchild of inventor, architect and all-round genius Buckminster Fuller, who sought to revolutionise society’s approach to efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Several of his projects carried the Dymaxion name yet, at the height of the depression, Fuller decided his road-going blimp was the most feasible. It was 19.5ft long, could carry 11 passengers and was powered by the brand-new Ford V8; yet it weighed about the same as a VW Beetle, and could achieve up to 36mpg. Impressive, in principle.

Steering from the tail

The first Dymaxion was completed in 1933; the lead image above shows Captain Al Williams (a noted speed flyer and driver) discussing its merits with Marvin McIntyre, secretary to President Roosevelt. However, the discussion might have been a little less jolly had it taken place a few months later: the first car produced had rolled over en route to the Chicago World Fair, killing its driver. The subsequent inquest pointed the blame at the three-wheeler’s steering system, which comprised two driven wheels up front, and a single steerable wheel at the tail. Fatefully, the same car was destroyed in a fire several years later and, due to the bad press from the earlier fatal accident, only two other cars were completed. The proof was in the pudding and, in the Dymaxion’s case, that pudding was a jelly – curious to look at, but disastrously unstable on the move.

Photo: Underwood Archives / Getty